The New Moneyball A’s are the poster team for what’s wrong with baseball

As the A’s celebrate the anniversary of their 2002 season, with a 20-game winning streak, the team’s front office can be proud of how they beat the system back then. But the ownership group should be embarrassed by the way they live off 20-year-old glory.

Baseball’s problem isn’t the continuing strike-zone follies, the storm of change, the pace of play, or the ever-increasing decrease in real action on the field.

These are all legitimate concerns, but MLB is in the process of addressing this issue. The change disappears next season. Robot umpires are calling balls and strikes will happen soon, as evidence mounts that human umpires can’t or won’t do this job.

Baseball’s biggest problem is the laughable disparity in team payrolls. It’s not exactly breaking news, but it’s an increasingly infuriating reality for A fans, and potential A fans, as team ownership shamelessly exploits the system.

The Dodgers have the highest payroll in baseball, $265 million, per Spotrac. Five other teams exceed $200 million. The A’s are second to last, at $48 million.

So the payroll of the top teams is about 5.5 times that of the bottom two teams (the Orioles are bottom at $44 million).

What other major sport would consider this a good system? Let’s look.

In the NBA, the Warriors led the payroll last season with $178 million, per BetMGM, due to the huge luxury tax they pay to keep players they’ve developed. All other teams except the Thunder spent at least $112 million.

NFL? The Cowboys had the highest payroll last season, $205 million, per BetMGM. The Seahawks were last, $172 million.

In the NHL, the top-spending team (Tampa Bay, $108 million) didn’t double the payroll of the lowest-spending team (Anaheim, $56 million).

Baseball is the only sport that supports this stupidity. How is it good for the game? Baseball justifies its payroll imbalance by pointing out that teams like the underpaid A’s of 2002 can triumph.


• In 2002, the Yankees had the highest payroll in MLB, $112 million. The A’s had the third-lowest payroll, $40 million. So the A’s were amply spent by the big boys, but not to the ridiculous extent that they are now.

• Back then, the A’s had Moneyball, a clever analysis system introduced by Sandy Alderson and refined by Billy Beane, while all the other teams were spitting tobacco in their hats. Today, every team has ultra-advanced analytics.

With the intelligence gap between the A’s and the rest of baseball closing and the money gap between rich and poor widening, you’re left with an organization living on past glory and future promises.

The promises are vague. Consider:

The Giants were sold in 1992 to Peter Magowan and his friends. About seven years later, the Giants were playing in a new ballpark they had built with their own money.

The Warriors were sold in 2010 to Joe Lacob and friends. Nine years later, the Warriors were playing in a new arena they had built with their own money.

The A’s were sold in 2005 to John Fisher and friends. Seventeen years later, they are at least about four years away from moving to a new stadium where they strength build, with massive help from taxpayers.

Baseball is funny. What other sport would do this: a team owner wants to sell his team, he finds a buyer, they make a deal, then the commissioner kills the deal and says to the team owner, “Forget your buyer. You have to sell your team to my old college buddy.

Then-commissioner Bud Selig forced A’s former owners to sell the team to Fisher and his minority partner Lew Wolff. Fisher’s credentials: He made money as a minority investor in the Giants. Wolff’s credentials: He spent the previous two years working for the A’s, tasked with getting a new ballpark, to no avail.

The poor schlub who was left out: Joe Lacob, who five years later bought the Warriors.

If Lacob had bought the A’s in 2005, who knows, they might have already won four or five World Series titles. We can be pretty sure: he would have built a new ballpark, with his own money.

(He might have knocked out Howard Terminal, as he would years later trying to build a waterfront arena in San Francisco, but Lacob’s plan B for a ballpark would be the Coliseum, not Vegas.)

And, Lacob’s A’s wouldn’t be the bottom two in MLB’s payroll rankings.

Instead, A fans have Fisher and minority owner/president Dave Kaval as the masters of New Moneyball.

The definition of Moneyball is to win by beating the system. With the original Moneyball, the goal was to win matches. With the New Moneyball, the goal is to make money, through low payroll, revenue sharing, and franchise appreciation.

In MLB’s silly system, the A’s are the big winners.

Scott Ostler is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @scottostler

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